Shi'ite militias fighting the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq have stepped up abuses against local Sunni residents, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said in a recent report.
According to the February 15 report, Iraqi security forces and allied Shi'ite militias in Muqdadiyya, a rural area some 80 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, began abuses against local residents in June, after the IS group took control of Mosul. Since then, the abuses have escalated, particularly in October 2014 when Haidar al-Abadi, a moderate Shi'ite Islamist, took over as Iraqi prime minister, HRW claimed.
HRW interviewed six displaced residents from villages near Muqdadiyya, who reported a litany of abuses committed by Shi'ite militias against local Sunnis.
One local resident, a farmer in his 50s named as Abu Seif, said that in June, he saw a group of militiamen from the Asaib Ahl al-Haqq brigade burn at least 50 houses in the village and fire mortars and rockets at homes. In October when Abu Seif tried to return to his home, he said that Shi'ite militiamen forced residents in the Bulour village to fly Shi'ite flags. Two months later in December, the militiamen kidnapped a local fruit and vegetable seller and demanded $70,000 for his release. He was later found dead, Abu Seif said.
Another man interviewed by HRW said that the militias distributed flyers threatening Sunni residents with death if they did not leave. Militias also accused local Sunnis of supporting the IS group, witnesses said.
Shi'ite militias rose up to fight the militants after Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a call to arms in June following IS militants' capture of Mosul. Since then, the militias -- who have received weapons, funding and training from Iran -- have managed to make gains, capturing a number of towns and villages from the Sunni extremists.
Iran has played an important role in the Shi'ite militias' battle against the IS group, with General Qassem Suleimani, the powerful leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, maintaining an unusually visible presence in Iraq, where he has coordinated the militias' offensives.
In contrast, only a small number of Sunni tribes in Anbar Province, most of which has been overrun by IS gunmen, have joined Iraqi government forces to battle the militants. These Sunni tribes have frequently complained that the Iraqi central government has failed to provide sufficient weapons, ammunition, and support to enable them to adequately combat the militants. The IS group has also committed mass killings of Sunni tribesmen in Anbar, which tribal leaders have described as "genocide."
Reining In The Militias
In response to the reports that Shi'ite militias have been committing atrocities against Sunnis, Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued a new edict on February 12, Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields, which warned against killing civilians.
"The lives of those who do not fight you are sacred, especially the weak among the elderly, the children and the women, even if they were the families of those who fight you. it is unlawful for you to violate the sacredness of those who fight you except for their belongings," Sistani declared.
Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi also pledged, in a December 18 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, to bring "all armed groups under state control."
Earlier this month, Abadi also said that he would probe the killing of two men from a prominent Sunni tribe who were killed in Anbar Province after being detained at a checkpoint. Abadi also called for an investigation into claims that Shi'ite militias had carried out a mass killing of 72 Sunnis in the village of Barwanah in eastern Iraq.
Meanwhile, as HRW's deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork commented, "Iraqi civilians are being hammered by [the IS group] and then by pro-government militias...residents have nowhere to turn for protection."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk